Remarks At The State Dept. Conf. On Leahy Law Implementation
Here is a video link to Senator Leahy’s remarks today at the State Department’s conference on implementation of the Leahy Law, which has become the most significant tool in the U.S. human rights toolbox. The video includes Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s introduction of Leahy. And below that is Leahy’s prepared text.
VIDEO LINK: https://www.youtube.com/StateDept
Senator Patrick Leahy
Department of State
2022 Leahy Law Conference
September 6, 2022
Thank you Wendy, and thank you to the Department of State for convening this discussion.
The fact that we are doing this is significant in and of itself. Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote what later become known as the Leahy Law, I don’t think anyone expected that it would attract so much interest and attention – not just in this country but around the world.
Back then, as many of you know, there were provisions in the Foreign Assistance Act that cut off aid to countries where there was a “consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.”
But those laws, although still on the books, have not been enforced. Not by Democratic or Republican administrations. Instead, successive U.S. governments were financing military death squads in Latin America that routinely captured, tortured, and killed critics of the government, whether members of opposition political parties, journalists, social activists, academics, or priests.
Latin America was not an aberration. The security forces of many countries, including some of our allies and partners, and UN peacekeepers, have long committed abuses with impunity.
The Leahy Law – and as you know there is a State Department version and a Defense Department version – is designed with two purposes in mind: to help prevent U.S. complicity in human rights abuses by foreign security forces, and to encourage accountability when abuses occur.
Consider the alternative: Providing guns, bullets, uniforms, and other equipment and training, paid for by American taxpayers, to foreign military and police forces who commit the worst crimes, even though their governments are doing nothing about it, or actively covering it up.
Even critics of the Leahy Law acknowledge that is unacceptable.
The challenge has always been how to apply the law to achieve what some may regard as competing or even incompatible national interests, but which I believe are complementary.
If we rightly condemn ISIS for summarily executing prisoners, should we not also condemn the Iraqi military, which we support, when its soldiers brutally torture prisoners?
It is a crime when Islamic Jihad targets civilians, but not when Egyptian soldiers shoot unarmed protesters?
I think the answer is obvious.
When we partner with foreign security forces we automatically become involved in the internal affairs of their countries. The way those forces act and are perceived by their own people reflects – positively, or negatively – on us.
When our partners, trained or equipped by us, commit abuses, we are complicit – or we are perceived to be complicit – in the predatory and abusive acts that erode the legitimacy of those forces.
I think most people understand this.
To accomplish what we intend, the Leahy Law has been amended multiple times. One example was just two years ago, when I learned that the State Department was essentially not applying the Law to governments that are among the largest recipients of U.S. military aid. We were providing weapons, ammunition, armored personnel carriers, and other items in bulk, without knowing which units would receive them.
If you don’t know which units receive the equipment, how do you know if they are eligible – or ineligible – under the Leahy Law? It created a gaping loophole in the Law.
There are many other examples, when different administrations have tried to circumvent or minimize the application of the Law, like when the term “assistance” was, for years, construed by the State and Defense Departments to only mean training, not equipment. That was a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Law, and it was necessary to amend it to make clear what should never have been in doubt.
Another example is defining which factors should be considered when determining whether information is “credible”, for purposes of the Law. For example, we learned of cases when the fact that a source of information had been critical of U.S. policy was used as the sole reason to reject the information as not credible.
Or instances when the fact that the Administration was not able to independently verify the information was the sole reason for rejecting it. Nowhere does the Law say this, nor would it logically be interpreted that way by someone genuinely interested in enforcing the Law. So we are amending it, once again, to clarify what should never have been in doubt.
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The Leahy Law intends to make clear that the United States will not tolerate or support foreign partners who violate the personal integrity, dignity, or rights of their citizens. People who order, commit, or cover up such crimes should be prosecuted and punished.
The Law also intends that those who use torture or shoot prisoners for reasons of political expediency, or because local justice systems are slow or inefficient, will not receive U.S. support.
That is what the Law requires when a foreign government rejects the need to hold perpetrators accountable.
But that is not the result we want. We want to help build professional, disciplined, transparent, and accountable security forces who are suitable partners for the United States.
We can do that not by treating them as if they are above the law – as we too often have done – but by providing an incentive to be accountable to the law.
We need military partners who are both capable and accountable – who respect the rule of law, defend the rights of citizens, and build stability in their countries.
That is why the Leahy Law is not in conflict with the strategic, security goal of “building partner capacity”. To the contrary – the Law represents a convergence of our respect for human rights and the rule of law, and our other national security interests.
As a former prosecutor, I know the importance of accountability. If our partners want to stop extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and forced disappearances – which are crimes in virtually every country, they need to demonstrate that perpetrators will be punished.
That often requires fundamental reform of judicial procedures and institutions, which takes time.
The Law does not prescribe how accountability should be administered in every case, nor do we have unrealistic expectations for countries where the judicial system barely functions. We are looking for the political will to stop impunity, provide the right incentives, and by doing so send a positive message to the citizens of those countries.
Disciplinary procedures and credible justice systems distinguish professional soldiers and police from criminals.
Accountability builds the public trust and support that security forces need to counter terrorism and prevent other violent crimes.
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That is why the Leahy Law emphasizes remediation. U.S. officials – civilian and military – in Washington, at our embassies, and at the combatant commands, should look for opportunities to assist their foreign partners in remediating units of security forces that have violated human rights.
Unfortunately, this is another area where, for the most part, successive U.S. administrations have failed to apply the Leahy Law as intended. With rare exceptions, if a unit is deemed ineligible under the Law, that is the end of the discussion. The foreign government may not even be told why. There has rarely been a sustained effort to encourage accountability, or to assist in that process, even though the Law explicitly requires the Secretary of State to assist governments in taking such steps.
The law requires active diplomacy – “Leahy Law diplomacy.” Civilian and military officials at foreign posts should regularly discuss with their partners when and why units have been deemed ineligible through the vetting process, and what steps the foreign government can and should take to remediate. These are not often easy conversations, but they are necessary.
I am in the final months before I retire from the Senate. The Leahy Law is one of the things I am proudest of. But I also know too well that laws are only words on paper. What really matters is how they are interpreted and enforced.
Despite the occasional naysayer who wants to waive the Leahy Law, or to make exceptions when the facts do not support it, or who thinks certain allies are beyond reproach, more and more people recognize that the Law is less about making accusations than about defending human rights wherever they are violated, and building lasting partnerships we can be proud of.
A quarter of a century later, and thanks in part to many of you here, the Leahy Law is being applied far more effectively today than in the early years after I wrote it. But it remains a work in progress, and your discussions here are part of that process.
One issue that I hope you will consider is whether and how to extend the Leahy Law – either in statute or as a matter of policy – to units of foreign security forces that purchase training and equipment from the United States, not only to those that receive grant assistance. There is no logical reason why the same human rights standard should not apply, whether a foreign government pays, or U.S. taxpayers pay.
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Despite the occasional bureaucratic inertia and resistance, I am confident the Leahy Law is here to stay. More and more people recognize that it is less about pointing fingers than about building partnerships that are consistent with our values and our goals.
They recognize that the alternative is indefensible – supporting abusive security forces that commit atrocities with impunity.
- That is not acceptable to the American people;
- It is not acceptable to the people of those countries whose soldiers and police have a responsibility to protect them; and
- It should not be acceptable to our partners.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity, and thank you for helping make the Leahy Law something we can all be proud of.
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